Thursday, January 31, 2013

Predator Drones Stalk US Borders Without Budget or Strategy

Published by Truthout, at:

US Customs and Border Protection has launched its drone program without undertaking a cost-benefit strategy that includes a specific role for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The agency continues to buy drones without planning for their support, maintenance or strategic value.
The Department of Homeland Security's drone program isn't classified, unlike the highly secretive CIA and military drone programs outside the United States.
Nonetheless, information about the DHS program to "secure the borders" with unmanned aerial systems is guarded, except for the self-serving press releases occasionally issued by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency that includes the Border Patrol.
CBP has kept a tight lid on its drone program since 2004, when the agency decided to launch the unmanned aircraft as the homeland counterpart to the foreign "war on terrorism" -- where drone strikes have come to play a central role.
Media inquiries and freedom of information requests by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been met largely by DHS stonewalling. For their part, Congressional oversight committees function almost exclusively as drone booster clubs. However, a trickle of reviews by government entities such as the Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office and the DHS Inspector General's Office have begun to shed some light on the secretive homeland security drone program.
Like the government's highly controversial foreign program of hunter-killer drones, it is becoming apparent that the DHS drone operations also deserve urgent public and congressional scrutiny. But not so much because national or international laws are being violated, US citizens targeted, or anyone is being hunted down and killed by these drones - at least thus far. Mostly the DHS drone program needs to be subjected to full transparency and accountability because it's been such a bust - an enormous waste of money.
Although the drone program started in 2004, the first hard information provided by DHS about its drone program came in May 2012 in the form of a brief report by the DHS Office of Inspector General: CBP's Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the Nation's Border Security, DHS Office of Inspector General, issued in May 2012.
This report, while limited to the shocking management failures of CBP, hints at the more serious underlying problems, like the lack of strategic directions and the dubious achievements of the drone operations of agency's Office of Air and Marine (OAM).
Predators Quickly Adapted for Border Security
The homeland security drone program, directed by a retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik (who played a key role in developing the armed Predator drone used for so-called "hunter-killer" missions overseas, deploys a fleet of highly expensive Predators on the nation's borders. The unarmed Predators, produced for border duty by General Atomics, cost $18.5 million to $20.5 million apiece, not counting the hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for General Atomics to operate and maintain the homeland drones.
Flush with billions of dollars in post-9/11 funding for "border security," DHS hurriedly launched the campaign to patrol the borders - north and south - with these Predators. In the rush to secure the homeland, DHS trampled over due-diligence standards to speed through orders for the drones, pilots and crews supplied by General Atomics.
CBP started deploying drones along the Arizona border without a plan for how they would be deployed, without a strategy defining their role in border security and without any cost-benefit evaluations, which would determine how effective and cost-efficient drones are compared to other instruments of border control - like agents on the ground, light manned aircraft or less-expensive, smaller drones.
The border agency claimed that the Predator drones would function as a "force multiplier." Yet CBP offered no research indicating Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) would indeed increase the efficiency of Border Patrol agents or result in higher rates of drug seizures and apprehensions.
Even accepting the notion that arrests of unauthorized immigrants and seizures of marijuana backpackers illegally crossing the border with their bundles of Mexican-grown weed contribute to homeland security, the numbers of immigrant apprehensions and drug seizures (almost exclusively marijuana) are low for these high-tech, high-budget drone operations.
CBP boasted in December 20111 that drone operations contributed to 7,500 apprehensions of illegal border crossers and 46,600 pounds of marijuana.
The 7,500 "criminal aliens" that the Border Patrol detained are small potatoes when compared to CBP's overall number of detentions since 2005 - 5.7 million immigrants, including the 327,000 detained in 2011. Expressed as a percentage, this amounts to only .001 percent of those detained during that period.
While categorized by CBP as "dangerous people" because they have crossed the border illegally, mostly they are simply unauthorized immigrants, although a small number are marijuana backpackers.
To give some perspective to the drug haul attributed to UAV surveillance over six years - 46,600 pounds of marijuana - CBP on average seizes 3,500 pounds of marijuana every day in Arizona, making a seizure every 1.7 hours. Drones had a role in the seizure of less than one percent of the Border Patrol's total marijuana in the past six years - only .003 percent to be precise.
Then, there is the matter of drones as counterterrorism instruments: how these unmanned remotely piloted vehicles can be used to identify, track and apprehend terrorists and terrorist weapons of mass destruction.
The drone program, according to CBP, focuses operations on the CBP priority mission of anti-terrorism by helping "to identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal cross-border activity." Yet, neither as part of its decision to launch the drone program nor in any subsequent pronouncements, releases, strategy statements or descriptions of drone accomplishments has CBP ever supported its assertion that drones are effective counterterrorist instruments.
The failure to link actual drone operations to the agency's "priority mission of anti-terrorism" is not surprising or unexpected. CBP makes the same claim about all its border security operations without ever attempting to detail how these operations are shaped or evaluated by its anti-terrorism mission.
Over the past eight years, CBP has steadily expanded its drone program without providing any detailed information about the program's functionality and total costs. Instead, to keep its expensive UAV program moving forward, CBP has relied on hugely supportive congressional oversight committees and on the widespread belief among politicians and the public in the efficiency of high-tech solutions.
After eight years, information about the homeland security drones has been limited to a handful of CBP announcements about new drone purchases, a series of unverifiable CBP statistics about drone-related drug seizures and immigrant arrests, and congressional presentations by OAM's chief, Kostelnik, that have been replete with anecdotes and assertions but short on facts.
The DHS internal review of the report of OAM and its drone operations didn't examine the accomplishments or the worth of the UAV program. The limited focus of the report was even more basic, namely, CBP's failure to have a budgetary plan for its UAVs. According to the OIG report, CBP has kept acquiring new drones, even though it doesn't have the staff or infrastructure to support its expanding fleet of Predator and Guardian (a marine variant) drones.
The OIG report's conclusions point to an utter lack of strategic, operational and financial planning by CBP. According to DHS report, "CBP had not adequately planned resources needed to support its current unmanned aircraft inventory."
Although CBP's annual budget and the supplementary authorizations for border security did cover the basic purchase price of new drones, the agency kept purchasing Predator and later Guardian drones even though OAM didn't have the personnel, budget or infrastructure to operate the drones. According to the department's inspector general, CBP lacked even the most elementary plan to "ensure that required equipment, such as ground control stations and ground support equipment, is provided."
The OIG also found that OAM didn't have procedures to bill other federal agencies like FEMA and the US Forest Service when CBP responded to requests for drone deployment away from the border. During his tenure as OAM chief, Kostelnik has repeatedly and increasingly boasted that his division's drones are serving a wide range of missions not related to border security, such as providing aerial images of forest fires.
Although Kostelnik frequently has attempted to explain the worth of the drone program by referring to such non-mission-related operations, not once did the OAM chief explain who paid for such operations and not once did congressional members query Kostelnik about the financing of these non-border operations.
There is no public record of where and when DHS drones have been deployed. One of the mysteries of the program over the past eight years is how CBP has been able to reconcile its seemingly contradictory statements about drone deployment. On the one hand, CBP routinely insists that drones perform a critical role in securing the border against an array of threats. On the other hand, however, CBP has increasingly described the value of its drones in terms of their use by other federal agencies.
What is more, OAM has made its drones available to assist local law enforcement agencies in operations unrelated to border security and has regularly shipped its drones to air shows around the nation and even outside the country, notably appearances at the Paris Air Show. At a June 12, 2011 congressional hearing, Kostelnik mentioned that OAM took a Guardian Predator to the 2011 Paris Air Show where it was on display at the DOD pavilion.
"That was the first time ever a Reaper Class Predator B aircraft was ever on display at the Paris Air Show," said Kostelnik, noting that it created a "good deal of interest with our partnership nations." Seemingly unable to justify OAM's deployment of drones for effective border control, Kostelnik noted OAM's role in getting other nations interested in buying Predators. "So in that arena we're on the leading edge of that policy," observed Kostelnik.
One explanation of the use of CBP drones for non-border objectives, including promoting Predator purchases abroad, is what the OIG describes as the lack of OAM planning processes that would "determine how mission requests are prioritized." OIG wasn't able to find any evidence of a CBP/OAM strategy that guided drone deployments.
According to OIG, "CBP has procured unmanned aircraft before implementing adequate plans to: achieve the desired level of operation; acquire sufficient funding to provide necessary operations, maintenance and equipment; and coordinate and support stakeholder needs."
Concerning the actual operations of the border security UAVs, OIG found that:
• Drone usage fell drastically short of OAM's own "mission availability threshold" (minimum capability) and its mission availability objective - 37 percent and 29 percent.
• Because of budget shortfalls for UAV maintenance, CBP in 2010 alone had to transfer $25 million from other CBP programs to maintain its UAV fleet even at a usage level that fell far short of the planned minimum.
• CPB has run its drone program in violation of its own operational standards and lacks the required "mobile backup ground control stations" at three of the four drone bases.
The OIG observed that despite this history of low usage and the lack of operational budget for its UAV fleet, OAM had ordered three additional drones from General Atomics.
In its understated conclusion, the OIG stated that CBP is "at risk of having invested substantial resources in a program that underutilizes resources and limits its ability to achieve OAM mission goals." Therefore, "CBP needs to improve planning of its unmanned aircraft system program to address its level of operation, program funding and resource requirements, along with stakeholder needs."
The US government - and particularly DHS - also needs to take more seriously its responsibility to not waste public revenues on high-tech border security programs that are dysfunctional and lack strategic focus. In the case of the UAV program and other high-tech ventures of the Border Patrol, the inflated and alarmist rhetoric about homeland security has covered up an endemic pattern of mismanagement.
Without a better match between mission and programming at DHS, its surveillance - whether by agents with binoculars, or cameras, towers, aerostats or drones - will remain unfocused. There may be mission-appropriate and helpful uses for drones by federal agencies. But it would appear to be a waste and a perversion of priorities to have Predator drones patrolling the skies on the hunt for immigrants and marijuana.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Drones for Immigration Reform

Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security agency, that is in charge of the air and marine assets used for border control, has over the past several years been pushed by Congress to deploy more drones, along both the northern and southern border.

One problem is that CBP’s Office of Air and Marine doesn’t have enough remote-control pilots or maintenance teams to keep its fleet of ten drones in the air.

Another problem is that CBP doesn’t have a strategy that includes a plan about how these unmanned aerial systems can complement existing border operations. In other words, how can these expensive pieces of high-tech aviation be best used in coordination with existing technology, infrastructure, and agents? Elementary, yes, but within CBP such a strategy or plan simply doesn’t exist.

Then, there is the sorry record of what CBP/OAM claims border drones have accomplished (see below).

One might expect that CBP would have attempted to evaluate the costs and benefits of its various instruments and operations used to “secure the border.” Nope. No such cost-benefit evaluations exist.

Now comes a bipartisan group of senators insisting that DHS/CBP should have more border drones as a precondition for immigration reform. No doubt their staff have seen (or at least know about) the series of recent reports by the Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and the DHS Inspector General that have started to peel open the lack of transparency and accountability that have characterized the border drone program, revealing what a chaotic, ineffective mess it is.

Nonetheless, Republicans and Democrats say that more drones are needed to secure the border as part of a new immigration policy.  Here’s what they say:

Additionally, our legislation will increase the number of unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance equipment, improve radio interoperability and increase the number of agents at and between ports of entry. The purpose is to substantially lower the number of successful illegal border crossings while continuing to facilitate commerce.

Basically, there is a broadening political consensus that we need to “fix our broken immigration policy,” as is commonly said. Yet, paralleling this immigration reform consensus is a much stronger bipartisan consensus around border security – despite the monumental waste, lack of focus,  high-tech boondoggles, and absence of any cost-benefit evaluations that assess how effective the various border security programs are. And when border security involves high-tech systems (even unproven or failed ones),  border hawks and immigration reformers in Congress want more and more – in part because of this nation’s faith in high-tech solutions.

How effective are border drones?

Even accepting the notion that arrests of unauthorized immigrants and seizures of marijuana backpackers illegally crossing the border with their bundles of Mexican-grown weed contribute to homeland security, the numbers of immigrant apprehensions and drug seizures (almost exclusively marijuana) are low for these high-tech, high-budget drone operations.

CBP boasted in December 20111 that drone operations contributed to 7,500 apprehensions of illegal border crossers and 46,600 pounds of marijuana.
The 7,500 “criminal aliens” that the Border Patrol detained constitute small potatoes when compared to CBP’s overall number of detentions since 2005 – 5.7 million immigrants, including the 327,000 detained in 2011. Expressed as a percentage, amounts to only 0.001 percent – and while categorized by CBP as “dangerous people” because they have crossed the border illegally.

Mostly they are simply unauthorized immigrants, although a small number are marijuana backpackers. To give some perspective to the drug haul attributed to UAV surveillance over six years – 46,600 pounds of marijuana – CBP on average 3,500 pounds of marijuana every day in Arizona – making a marijuana seizure every 1.7 hours. Drones had a role in the seizure of less than one percent of the Border Patrol’s total marijuana in the past six years – to be exact only 0.003 percent.

To say nothing about the total disconnect between border security and the animating mission to protect the homeland against terrorism.

- Tom Barry

Sunday, January 27, 2013

El Norte or Bust!

The Ixil Triangle –the rugged mountain home of the Ixil Maya in Guatemala’s Altiplano -- was the center of the Guatemalan Army’s counterinsurgency campaign three decades ago. It was also a destination for progressive writers, researchers, and photographers compelled to record the story of insurgency and its horrific repression.

The unnerving trip past military patrols, checkpoints and newly established garrisons, along with the roving military-sponsored civil patrols, was out of the question for Guatemalan journalists and scholars. But we foreigners, magically protected by our passports and connections (and sense of invulnerability), could venture into this this massacre-marked land – into this mountain-bound triangle defined by the towns of Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal.

There was much to report and photograph:  abandoned hamlets, burnt-out Catholic churches, the army’s “model villages,” the new presence of U.S. evangelicos, and the hauntingly empty stares of villagers and young peasant soldiers who had witnessed and perpetrated horrors.

Like many progressive activists and scholars indignant about new U.S. interventionism in Central America, I traveled to the region, tracking the trail of U.S. imperialism -- learning, expressing solidarity, and educating, and protesting back home. But never going back. Not after the disintegration of the resistance movements, the successes of the counterinsurgency campaigns, the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the peace accords of the mid-1990s. Moved on to other hot spots, other causes.

Fortunately, David Stoll, the author of a new book focused on Nebaj, kept returning to Guatemala to tell the evolving story of the Ixil people. El Norte or Bust! doesn’t tap the cachet of indigenous resistance, genocidal repression, or secret U.S. collaboration with dictatorships that drew progressives to Guatemala in the late 1970s and 1980s. The author establishes the context for the new conjuncture of development projects, emigration, and integration into the global culture and consumption, briefing the reader about the recent but fading past of rebellion and repression, yet avoiding the temptation to recall the horrific time in much detail and evoke the emotion, sentiment, and convictions that lingers from this period. It seems that the Ixils of Nebaj have mostly moved on, and so has Stoll.

Instead, Stoll has returned to investigate the inner workings of micro finance – a subject that at first glance seems of interest only for development specialists, not for the general reader. The book’s subtitle, “How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town,” might strike one as a title best suited for an academic essay or doctoral dissertation. Yet from the first page, Stoll skillfully captures the reader with a story of the small Latin American town of Nebaj that is immeasurably more linked to us today than it was in the early 1980s.

We should be thankful that Stoll didn’t abandon the region like so many others, and that he brings to his research not only his rigorous scholarship but also his ability to break through old paradigms of analysis -- all with an off-hand eloquence and frankness.

In El Norte or Bust! there’s much to inform us – not only about the Ixil people have fared since the war but also about the continuing links between America and the highlands of Guatemala.

But Stoll’s contributions do more than inform. Like his earlier books, Stoll’s El Norte or Bust! shatters assumptions, destroys myths, and ushers in new frameworks of analysis and understanding about such issues as immigration, globalization, and communitarian indigenous society.

Stoll, a respected cultural anthropologist, brings together the best of the techniques of scholarly research, investigative reporting, and feature journalism to this important book.

Upon his return to Ixil a several years ago, Stoll found that his inquiries about how Nebaj had changed in the intervening years led inevitably to “two sacred cows in the current pantheon of wishful thinking.”

Through interrelated stories of Ixil families, Stoll casts his penetrating gaze on microcredit (why not call it “micro-debt? Stoll asks) and wage-migration. 

As the counterinsurgency war and Marxist-led rebellion came to an end, the Ixil Triangle was flooded by NGOs bearing projects, many of which were microcredit development initiatives, largely European. Stoll aptly describes his book as a “fortuitous window on an obscure subject – how Guatemalan peasants have used formal and informal credit to finance unauthorized migration to the United States and, as a result, are now deeply in the hole.”

For those of us who follow immigration issues, it is commonly understood that would-be immigrants need several thousand dollars to pay for their trip north. Not so well understood, however (and never before so thoroughly examined) is the back-story of where this money comes from -- and what happens when these immigrants never make it to the other side, cannot find jobs or lose their jobs in the United States, are deported, and are never able to pay back the debt that paid for their trips north.

Although Stoll acknowledges that most of his field experience has been in Nebaj, he observes: “The stories I hear suggest that migration is a highly competitive process, not just in U.S. labor markets but in the sending population, fueled by competition over land, inheritances, and scarce opportunities for upward mobility.”

That much most immigration experts already knew -- although probably wouldn’t have been able to state the process so succinctly. But then Stoll takes us a step further, beyond where most immigration observers have gone: “The stories I hear also suggest that migration is a process that runs on debt, with migrants indebting themselves and their relatives to the migration stream in ways that many are unable to repay. The debts not only enable migration but pressure more people to go north, in a chain of exploitation that can suck more value from the sending population than it returns.”

Most South-North migration in the Western Hemisphere, as Stoll sees it, is best described as “low-wage” migration, and he makes a strong case that it is unsustainable. His study of the mostly devastating impacts in Nebaj (real estate bubbles, lost farms, indentured immigrant families hopelessly in debt, pyramid financing schemes, and more all in this remote Latin American town) -- especially leading up to and following the 2007-08 U.S. financial crash – provides a powerful argument.

But his macro argument is even more persuasive. Listen, especially as the immigration reform debate begins again in the United States:

For me, and for the Guatemalans…the most important issue is whether the U.S. economy can give them a living wage. Employment is the key: if they can find a job at something like a living wage, then most of the problems raised in this book will resolve themselves or at least be manageable. Thus if you think the U.S. economy can provide tens of millions of good jobs for a rapidly growing population, then immigrants like the Nebajenses have a good chance of paying their debts, contributing to the U.S. economy and helping their families back home.

If on the other hand you think the U.S. economy faces serious constraints, that it will be an uphill struggle to provide living wages for our existing population let alone large numbers of immigrants, then our low-wage migration streams have become yet another unsustainable business model.”

While the context is the link between debt and migration, Stoll doesn’t let the traditional constraints of academic research box him in; and again, we should be grateful. Some of the most powerful sections of the book take apart the myths of indigenous communitarianism, reveal the plight of the Ixil women in a deeply patriarchal culture, dare to discuss over population and "surplus siblings," detail the ugly blowback of immigration streams in Guatemala, and draw the connections between the microeconomics of Nebaj and the pyramid schemes and structures of global capitalism.

El Norte or Bust! is an eye-opening book – a must-read for all  sympathetic observers of immigrants and their options, and for all of those who left Central America behind.

Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2013

Friday, January 11, 2013

Yes,Immigration Reform But Fix Border Policy

Tom Barry

Voters reelected Obama, as expected. But it was not simply a reelection; there was also an unexpected revival, a seemingly miraculous resurrection of the prospects for immigration reform. The election also seemed to mark a turn toward drug control reform and the legalization of marijuana.

As Republicans and Democrats recognize the political logic of finally fixing the country’s restrictive and harsh immigration policies, there is bipartisan support for immigration reform. Rather than being a untouchable “third rail” of politics, immigration reform has emerged, as if overnight, as a political imperative for both parties.

Largely because of dramatically increasing political participation of Latinos, Asians and other immigrant-based communities, support for some type of immigration reform -- whether a comprehensive overhaul or piecemeal revisions -- spans nearly the entire political spectrum in post-election America.

Advocacy for immigration reform is breaking into various camps, from those only supporting an expansion of guest-worker programs to those who insist on comprehensive immigration reform. Virtually all sectors regard border security as a precondition for immigration reform. Border security is the common ground for all camps favoring immigration reform, even among immigrant-rights advocacy groups.

When speaking about the new prospects for immigration reform after his reelection, President Obama made the now-required nod to border security. It’s rare to hear any politician or reform advocate speak favorably of immigration reform without the apparently requisite nod to border security. As President Obama said, "I think it should include a continuation of the strong border security measures that we've taken because we have to secure our borders.”

What does 'Secure Our Borders' Mean?

Yet for all the enthusiastic support for increased border security – whether as nationalist response, a tactic to achieve immigration reform, or because of anti-immigration or pro-drug control convictions – there is no common understanding of what border security actually means. It would be fascinating to hear President Obama explain what border security means and what the $100 billion we have spent in border security programing has accomplished in the last 10 years.

The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Border Patrol aren’t much help in defining or assessing border security. About the closest DHS comes to defining border security is declaring its commitment to “secure the border” against the entry of “dangerous people and goods.” This more militaristic and threat-laden phrasing that pushed aside the pre-9/11 language of “border control” and about blocking flows of illegal aliens and illegal drugs.

The ambiguity and expansiveness of the new border security mission is paralleled by the Border Patrol’s apparent inability to evaluate the threats and risks to border security and to assess the degree to which the border is secure. The Border Patrol has squandered much of the goodwill, trust and credibility that resounded to its border control mission after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The billions of dollars wasted in flawed high-tech projects, and the agency’s unwillingness to subject its many new border-security initiatives to cost-benefit evaluations and risk-based assessments, have given rise to new skepticism about border policy.

The Border Patrol rightly links its security mission to an assessment of risks and threats and to a new risk-management commitment. Yet, as has been the practice of the Border Patrol both before and after 9/11, there is no evidence that the agency has instituted rigorous risk-based strategies for its operations and resource distributions.

The Border Patrol implicitly equates numbers and threats. In the post-9/11 lexicon, all illegal entries are defined as threats. Rather than undertaking traditional threat assessments, the Border Patrol has dumbed down its definitions of threats and risks. Its risk-based, intelligence-driven strategy, therefore, identifies the areas of highest risk as the areas of the border with the highest number of illegal entries.

Securing the Border Against Foreign Terrorists

The Border Patrol asserts that its main mission is to protect the homeland against terrorists and terrorist weapons. The joint mission of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol states:
We are the guardians of our Nation’s borders. We are America’s frontline. We safeguard the American homeland at and beyond our borders. We protect the American public against terrorists and the instruments of terror.
Inexplicably, the agency has never included terrorism protection as a performance indicator. Nor has the Border Patrol offered any evidence that its “intelligence-driven” border security programs actually focus on terrorists and terrorist networks.

One likely reason the Border Patrol does not address its counterterrorism in any detail is that the agency’s border security buildup on the southwestern border has not resulted in the apprehension of members of foreign terrorist organizations, as identified by the State Department.

Experts in counterterrorism agree there is little risk that foreign terrorist organizations would rely on illegal border crossings – particularly across the U.S.-Mexico border –  for entry into the United States. While the fear that foreign terrorists would illegally cross U.S. land borders drove much of the early build-up in border security programs under the newly created homeland security department, counterterrorism seems to have dropped off the actual and rhetorical focus of today’s border security operations.

Indicative of this reduced focus on terrorism and return to the traditional focus on illegal immigration and illegal drugs is found in the recently released 2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan. There is only one reference to terrorism in the new strategy’s executive summary. In contrast, the previous Border Patrol Strategy, issued in September 2004, has 13 such references.

The Border Patrol offers no explanation for this stunning change in focus. Counterterrorism is still cited as the overarching goal of CBP, yet there is little in the new strategy statement to demonstrate this strategic focus.

From Terrorists to Transnational Criminals

As cross-border terrorism has faded as a homeland security concern, the Border Patrol has shifted the focus of its threat assessments to transnational criminal organizations based in Mexico. What formerly were called drug trafficking organizations by the federal government are now labeled TCOs. Although never mentioned previously, the Border Patrol over the past three years has warned of the threat posed by TCOs to border security.

Unfortunately, the Border Patrol has supported its escalated threat assessments about TCOs by counting the arrests of all drug couriers as blows to the TCOs, implying or stating that immigrants and other illegal border crossers carrying varying amounts of marijuana (or in rare cases other illegal drugs) are “transnational criminals.”

Since the creation of DHS, CBP, together with ICE, have also attempted to demonstrate that immigration and drug enforcement at the border and elsewhere is “risk-based.” Yet rather than prioritizing focusing their intelligence gathering on likely foreign threats to the borders, the post-9/11 border security apparatus has quickly returned to its traditional targeting of illegal drugs and unauthorized immigrants as “dangerous goods and people,” while recklessly labeling illegal border crossers as part of the operations of Mexican criminal organizations.

The Border Patrol should, as part of its risk-based and intelligence-driven strategy, maintain a near-exclusive focus on the TCO hierarchies and their enforcers. Likewise, the Border Patrol should end its characterization of all drug-trade networks as TCOs but instead focus on those designated as TCOs by the State Department.

CBP, ICE and the Border Patrol have also used its post-9/11 commitment to risk-based enforcement to shift many immigrants into criminal categories, such as “criminal aliens”  and “fugitive aliens.”

In the borderlands and elsewhere, DHS has found broad support for its professed commitment to prioritize the arrest and deportation of the most dangerous immigrants, both those here legally and illegally.

The widespread use of illegal recreational drugs in the United States combined with harsh anti-immigrant statutes have resulted in routine deportation of otherwise law-abiding legal immigrants for even minor drug violations, thereby making a travesty of the risk-based criteria.

This all counts, in the estimation of DHS, as improved border security.

The crossing of illegal drugs has long characterized the border and will continue to do so as long as there is a U.S. market for these substances. Currently, the Border Patrol routinely labels illegal border crossers carrying marijuana as being accomplices or members of TCOs, thereby demonstrating its lack of strategic focus.

Bipartisan Support for Border Security Deserves New Scrutiny

As part of its stated determination to pursue risk-based border protection, the Border Patrol should deprioritize immigration enforcement. A credible risk-management process cannot justify operations that make no distinction between truly dangerous individuals and ordinary immigrants seeking work and family reunification. The Border Patrol should instead target border bandits who prey upon vulnerable immigrants and the smugglers of truly dangerous illegal and prescription drugs.

Marijuana is not a security threat, and there is mounting momentum for its decriminalization on both sides of the border. More than 95% of the Border Patrol’s drug war activities involve marijuana.

This is a waste of scarce government resources; it diverts DHS from actual security threats, and contributes to the unnecessary militarization of the border. Administratively, DHS could, and should, mandate that the Border Patrol end what is, in effect, its strategic focus on the marijuana drug war.

The emerging debate over immigration reform comes with insistence from most political quarters that border security operations continue or increase. Not so long ago the common political wisdom – accepted and even embraced by liberals and progressives – was that increased border security increased the probability of immigration reform.

In the wake of the election, however, there exists a new political calculus about immigration reform that has more to do with democracy than about pacifying border security hawks and anti-immigrant nationalists. Polls and vote counts indicate that U.S. society wants to reform immigration laws to make them less restrictive.

At a time when immigration reform is again getting bipartisan attention, the imperatives driving the border security build-up also merit review and reform.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Border Patrol Culture and Its Unhinged Strategy

Truthout has published two articles about the confusion that pervades the U.S. Border Patrol.  When I submitted the article I titled the "Border Patrol's Lack of Clear Direction," the editor responded with an exclamation, "Sheesh, after reading [this] I think "ANY Direction" would be an improvement."  

Here are the links to the two Truthout pieces:

Border Patrol Culture

Sometimes, I find myself sympathizing with the Border Patrol, knowing well that many (or at least some) of them realize that what they are doing for a living is a shit-load waste of time and money. Mostly what they do is sniff around for marijuana, and dogs do it better.

Sure, they still pick up an occasional immigrant (average 4 apprehensions in 2011, and it's down substantially in 2012); but what, they must ask themselves, does immigration policing have to do with "security" mission?  Sometimes, though, what find most objectionable (and bewildering) is their overblown rhetoric and military jargon -- very much on display in the USBP's latest strategy statement. 

Thinking about this language problem on my way back and forth across the Arizona-Sonora border last week, it came to me that all my analysis of the Border Patrol and CBP misses a core factor that would explain their lack of a "clear direction." 

On an institutional and personal level, the language of "border security" functions simultaneously as a mask and crutch.

The military jargon of threats, forward-operation bases, operational control, etc. hides the fact that this agency's operations have little or nothing to do with security. Rather, it is more about sitting bored, shift after shift, in green-and-white trucks looking for immigrants and weed.
Perhaps, just perhaps, this glorified sense of mission -- this security mask -- would be okay if it existed primarily to keep up morale (lowest among federal bureaucracies) and to keep these gals and guys awake in their trucks.

But as seen in the strategy statements of all these homeland security agencies, especially CBP along with USBP and Office of Air and Marine, the mask is much more than an internal morale booster; it functions to justify ever higher budgets, increased presence in border communities, and enormously expensive high-tech solutions. 

Also insidious is the culture this elevated security jargon shapes and nurtures -- a culture where reality is not permitted to interfere with doctrine and mission. When you enter the world of the Border Patrol, you step into an insular, low-functioning, self-justifying culture that boosts low self-esteem and is regarded uncritically (even with admiration) by the rest of society. As a Border Patrol agent, you only have to listen to President Obama or most any other politician to maintain your delusions. 

It's the same with the military -- and most of these agents and their chiefs come from the military -- but even more exaggerated on the border. If I could figure out a way to say something like this in the language of policy analysis, that's what I would say is the essence of border patrol strategy and operations. Much like the way right-wing ideologues, or leftist ones for that matter, are so caught up in their rhetorical frameworks that reality is lost or ignored. 

It's the crutch part of the security language that gets to the more personal part-- and admittedly is dangerously generalized.
I am continually amazed, shocked, dismayed, and amused by the language used by Border Patrol officials in their congressional testimony, their strategy statements, and descriptions of operations.

Dripping with military jargon that gets more ridiculous every year as they strain to explain themselves and justify the billions of dollars they spend. Certainly it is explained largely by the macho thing, which runs through all agencies and services that carry guns and wear badges and ribbons. But it is also a matter of class and education. At least that's how I have come to understand it. 

Jargon is a crutch to use when you don't have your own understanding or words to explain what's happening. And when your mission is so far removed from the reality of what you are doing, then the jargon is the only way to explain yourself.  

Okay, I will say it. The Border Patrol is not the most sophisticated, educated, thoughtful grouping of individuals protecting us.  The military language and concepts that pervade the Border Patrol's new strategy and the justifications for all its new operations give these agents and their bosses an elevated sense of themselves and their mission -- a crutch to compensate for their own inadequacies and a mask behind which they can successfully hide.

When they spew out this conceptual strategic garbage -- cribbed completely from the military -- they leave us with wondering what they hell they mean and are talking about, which must be taken as a sure sign of their superior status.

This interpretation of the crutch and mask culture helps make sense -- for me -- of the nonsensical new Border Patrol strategy. But even if it captures a bit of the truth of the Border Patrol culture, it doesn't explain why the agency has been able to fool not only themselves but also so many others with their unhinged rhetoric and strategies -- the congressional oversight committees, for example. 

Certainly low levels of intellectual aptitude come into play here, too, although other factors include the ideology of border hawks, the pork-barrel politics of border politicians, and the perceived need to show constituents that they are strong on security matters. Tune in to any hearing of the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee for a bit of amusement -- and the shock, amazement, and dismay that I refer to.